Modern Yiddish publishing: New feminist horror stories by Elizabeth Schwartz
Art from the cover of Elizabeth Schwartz’ ‘The Sweet France of Life and Other Horror Stories’

Elizabeth Schwartz is a singer extraordinaire, recording artist, filmmaker—and the subject of a film documentary—podcast writer (of, among other things, the 2021 audio drama, Debs in Canton, about Eugene V. Debs, which won multiple awards for excellence in writing). She is a frequent collaborator with her husband, klezmer musician and also multi-talented creative, Yale Strom. (As a concert producer I worked with Elizabeth and Yale many times, and also executive produced our Soviet Yiddish CD City of the Future.)

Now, deepening her skills and broadening her reach, she has teamed up with Olniansky Tekst, a Yiddish-language publisher based in Höör, Sweden, which has just released her collection of three short fiction pieces, The Sweet Fragrance of Life and Other Horror Stories, which also appear in Yiddish (if you open the book the other way) as Der ziser duft funem lebn un andere shrek-mayses. Schwartz writes in English; the Yiddish translator is unnamed. (As of this writing this title is not yet listed in the publisher’s online catalogue.) Shrek is the Yiddish word for horror or fright, and the name of a popular Broadway show!

Olniansky Tekst Farlag was founded in 2010 with the mission to create modern literature in Yiddish and thus contributing to keeping the language alive outside of the Hasidic world. Generally speaking, although Hasidim, ultra-Orthodox Jews who preserve Yiddish as a means of segregating themselves from the secular societies around them, do retain their attachment to the language, they are not interested in secular literature promoting worldly values at odds with their religion.

I well recall my tenure (1995-2011) as Southern California director of Workers Circle/Arbeter Ring, when one of my tasks was to receive donations of Yiddish books, sort and pack them, and ship them off to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Aside from the classics—and the rarities—of Yiddish literature, those hundreds of cardboard boxes and paper shopping bags came in to our office filled with translated works by authors such as Romain Rolland, Tolstoy, Zola, Anatole France, Mark Twain and others. I was astounded to encounter more than one set of the over 20-volume collection of Guy de Maupassant in Yiddish(!). Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were hungry to break out of their cultic shtetl obscurantism and learn about the world.

Author Elizabeth Schwartz

And now they can read both original works in Yiddish, for children and adults, published by Olniansky (several authored by I. Olniansky and Nikolaj Olniansky), as well as translations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Is there perhaps something slightly subversive about this project? To make such deeply secular, and/or obviously non-Jewish works available to fluent Yiddish speakers? The market, surely, is limited.

Olnianksy is also republishing works by Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer in his original Yiddish, even if such books are readily available either online or through the Yiddish Book Center. Although Singer largely based his fiction on the Hasidic world he grew up in in interwar Poland, his fascination with witches, demons, sexuality, possession of souls, apostasy, crime and passion, made him an outcast not only in the Orthodox Jewish world but in some quarters of the secular Yiddish world as well that scorned such mysticism and other escapist fantasy.

In her acknowledgments, Schwartz writes, “If I myself were a fairytale, there might be a lost princess who stumbles across three witches who set her on her path. But as I’m just a real person, I didn’t get three witches. I did get three wise women. (Let’s face it, same thing.)”

All three of  her stories, set in distinctly different milieus, center on Jewish women—who aren’t so wise. Her point, if I read her correctly, is precisely to reveal how women of a certain time, class and social position are essentially powerless to control their fates, especially in the face of horrors of either a religious, mystical or historical nature that they confront. If one of the tenets of feminism is the factor of “agency,” this is sorely absent in these stories. Perhaps that itself is the horror.

In “The Rebbe’s Prayer is Answered,” Schwartz slips into I.B. Singer mode, taking aim at a revered Orthodox rabbi who, to his profound disappointment, is unable to produce a child with his wife Gitl. What immediately struck me as a reader is that the sentimental meme of the “revered rebbe” is a dependable old standby in Old World Jewish folklore: Yes, he is just this side of being a saint, but he does have his human flaws. In this tale, however, they are monstrous. The author takes obvious pleasure in making sure he receives his just reward.

Linda Siewert illustration for ‘The Sweet Fragrance of Life’

“The Sweet Fragrance of Life,” the title story, is set in an apartment building in Marburg, Germany, during the Weimar years, where the owner of Bamberger’s Department Store lives with his family in the nicest penthouse. The daughter, Friedl Bamberger, is a talented pianist, and the strains of her playing float through the building. They reach the ears of Henrik, the new porter, and when they meet, a certain frisson of romantic attraction can’t be ignored. The writer depicts a world of comfortable, upper-class Jewish life, but one not without its aggravations, mostly from bothersome neighbors. But who, really, is Henrik? The answer is prefigured in the long quote of the lyric from Mahler’s first song, “The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow,” which both Friedl and Henrik know and sing by heart:

Look down there!
In the moonlight, on the graves
crouches a wild, ghostly figure—It is an ape!
Hear how its howls resound piercingly
in the sweet fragrance of life!…
Dark is life, dark is death!

“The Jonah,” the third story, is based on a historical event, the sinking of the Struma on February 24, 1942, in the Black Sea. This unseaworthy vessel, originally built as a cattle barge, had been commissioned to take 769 Jewish refugees from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul, where they would transfer to another ship bound for their new life in Palestine. It was the last such ship to leave Europe in wartime. Bureaucratic delays and human indifference resulted in the drowning deaths of all but one passenger aboard.

The story focuses on Cili, 16, a desperately poor girl with, tellingly, no parents mentioned, whose grandma, her bobe (pron. BAW-beh), sends her off to Bucharest as a house servant to the well-to-do Mogulescu family, who are preparing to sail away on the Struma. On board, Cili suffers degradation not only from her sadistic mistress, nor only from finding just a tiny patch of floor in the overcrowded hold to sleep on, but also from the crew. Eventually (no spoiler here—it’s in the title), like the Biblical Jonah, she is thrown overboard. Just to offer one short sample of Schwartz’s writing:

“Cili hit the freezing water hard and was swallowed up. She could hear something slip into the water after her, but she was not afraid. She was relieved. She was thankful to be delivered from the tortures of the storeroom, from all the abuses that awaited her through the many years of service to Mrs. Mogulescu, thankful that she would instead be taken by the sea, and washed clean as she died.”

This story—maybe all three of Schwartz’s stories—echoes I.B. Singer, who often was quoted as saying, “Death is the only messiah.” In fact, it is the title of a collection of “Three Supernatural Stories” and must have served as a literary inspiration. Schwartz excels at word-painting the social environments she writes about—the small town where the rebbe holds forth, the German apartment building, the shipboard. Whether or not any sense of cleansing is possible in the aftermath of horror is not her concern. Readers will have to figure that out for themselves.

While the book production is obviously itself designed as a work of literary art, with Linda Siewert’s evocative illustrations, a few details could have been perfected. In the first story, for example, some Yiddish words are italicized, others not; and the term for “commands” or “good deeds,” should have been rendered (p. 11) as mitsves, not “mitsvot,” the Sephardic pronunciation of the word as used in modern Israeli Hebrew—an unfortunate lapse from a Yiddish publisher. This story is accompanied by a short, helpful glossary, from which, strangely, mitsves is omitted. In the middle story, Gustav Mahler’s well-known vocal-orchestral cycle “Song of the Earth” plays a significant role, but here it’s called “Song From the Earth,” awkwardly mistranslating the German von or the Yiddish fun. In the last story, the rank of the ship’s bosun (or bos’n or even bo’s’n, deriving from the word “boatswain)”) is printed three different ways, none of them standard.

Elizabeth Schwartz
The Sweet Fragrance of Life and Other Horror Stories
Yiddish translation by Olniansky Tekst HB 2023
Illustrations by Linda Siewert
Höör, Sweden: Olniansky Tekst Farlag, 2003
47 pp. in English; 66 pp. in Yiddish
ISBN: 978-91-987219-9-7

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.